Inside FEBTOR 2013

FEBTOR is easily one of the most engaging and inspiring events to happen in Toronto, on what will now (hopefully) be a yearly basis. What the heck is FEBTOR, you ask? It’s the latest title for the second annual SketchBook Toronto creative forum, hosting a multitude of speakers with a wide variety of creative backgrounds. Last year’s opening speaker was Susur Lee, an incredible chef who explained where he gets his inspiration for his amazing dishes (Coles Notes version: he explores his heritage through ingredients, and uses music to get his creative juices flowing). This year’s opening speaker was Alex Woo, a story artist from Pixar whose post-basketball game conversations with friends helped tie together a crucial thread in the film WALL-E. The majority of speakers/guests are involved in the comic world in one way or another, but by not limiting speakers/guests to this category, there’s this amazing opportunity for ideas and advice to cross-pollinate.

Chris Cheung is FEBTOR’s host as well as the mastermind behind this inventive gathering. Cheung and his fantastic team at SketchBook Pro (the intuitive drawing program from Autodesk), put on the event as a way for local creators to be inspired by each other and their processes. As Cheung even admitted during FEBTOR 2013, an unplanned side effect was that attendees gave the SketchBook Pro program a shot. There was never any sort of corporate push towards their product at either this or the previous event; the focus is always on creativity and the tools used, whether it’s SketchBook or not. FEBTOR has already been compared to TED talks and with good reason. It’s the kind of event that motivates you to do more and be better at it than ever before.

The list of speakers for 2013 was more illustrator focused than in 2012, but their presentations didn’t always focus only on the art. Good storytelling was the underlying theme of FEBTOR 2013. Alex Woo started off the event, with an imaginative and humorous presentation on why story is king at Pixar. Woo’s accompanying slide show was peppered with adorable illustrated examples of his childhood self enamoured with heroines like Lorraine Baines from Back to the Future and Ariel from The Little Mermaid, only to be heartbroken by their subsequent roles/incarnations (e.g. Howard the Duck and The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea). It was a great example of how a good story could make or break a childhood crush, and beyond that, make or break a movie.

Woo explained the Pixar process, how ideas are continually re-evaluated and re-shaped until they become impenetrable – solid tales that engage audiences. A good story should nurture empathy, especially for characters that we wouldn’t necessarily relate to due to differences in age, race, class, or gender. Good stories set a theme and without story, every other piece of the cinematic puzzle falls apart. No amount of special effects, acting performances, or cinematography can save a film that has a weak story. See any of Michael Bay’s films as an example.

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Though not the official credo as it is Pixar’s, good storytelling has become the focus for artists and writers at Marvel according to C. B. Cebulski. As Senior Vice President of Creative & Creator Development at Marvel, Cebulski’s job involves travelling the world in search of talented creators to add to the Marvel (and Disney) roster. His talk at last year’s Sketchbook event focused on how to break in to comics and though he touched on that this year, his emphasis was on how to stay in comics through good storytelling. Covers and standalone images are great, but if artists are not able to convey exactly what is happening in a scene with little to no supporting text, they may find it difficult to survive in the modern comics world. A good artist portfolio should include continuous pages that tell a story even without dialogue. The 90’s Image era style comics of splash pages with little storytelling has come to a close and readers expect more for the $3.99 price tag on their comics.

Marvel editors and writers have taken this to heart, meeting twice a year to plan out the upcoming events and stories for each title in publication. The focus is on good story and tying events together as neatly as possible with all books involved. Even though some story-lines can and will cause significant fan outcry (see Amazing Spider-Man and the subsequent Superior Spider-Man run for some passionate examples), editors are backing writer’s goals and sticking to strong stories they believe in.

The same goes for the art; Canadian artist Stuart Immonen’s incredible ability to illustrate a story that’s easy to follow and understand before any dialogue is added in was cited more than once by Cebulski as an example of a creator who gets it. Another aspect of using art to tell a story effectively is approaching settings as characters. New York City is the biggest character in the Marvel Universe, the home town of a large majority of its superheroes, and any reader who has been to the Big Apple should be able to recognize places in the comic they’re reading. It’s a simple but effective way to connect with your audience. Another is to focus on body language by “pulling back the camera,” opening up panels to show subtle gestures that can convey just as much or more than any overt action. Facial expressions are great tools to bring emotion to scenes and the time for pinch-faced snarling heroes is thankfully over.

One of the best pieces of advice that Cebulski gave goes beyond the art and into how artists represent themselves and their work. There are a lot of comic artists who have similar styles, so at the end of the day, when a decision has to be made between two, the one who’s made a personal connection or impact on an editor or writer will likely win. This is true for any career, but applies particularly well to the traditionally solitary field of writing and drawing. Use social media as a tool to showcase yourself and your talents online, or as Cebulski said simply but to great effect; “Tell your story online. Make sure people know who you are. Be as good a storyteller about yourself as you are with your art.” The same goes for when you’re offline. If you’re at a convention, strike up conversations with other creators and editors. Showing an authentic interest in what they do will make you memorable, create more contacts in your network and heck, might even land you some new friends and/or jobs in the process. It seems like such obvious, simple advice but Cebulski’s speech was packed full of golden nuggets like these that any aspiring artist would be remiss to not heed.

Following Cebulski on stage was no small feat, but the triad of speakers from Toronto’s own RAID studio did not disappoint. Willow Dawson, Francis Manapul and Ramón Pérez gave their own speeches individually before being brought together as a panel for questions. Dawson started off discussing her process of adapting biographies of historical icons into comics, specifically her graphic novel Hyena in Petticoats: The Story of Suffragette Nellie McClung. Pulling from all available sources, she was able to create a rounded story that didn’t shy away from the subject’s flaws, which made this iconic woman more relatable to readers. Dawson considers the process of biography to be taking a hero and putting a human face on them. Ironically, her process for autobiographical works is the opposite; taking a human and making a character out of them. At the core of both is a well-rounded character, who’s interesting and has a unique voice defined not just by what they say, but also what they do. A good way to help build a character is to consider what their secrets would be. “Secrets are the key to what motivates people” is the concise guidance Dawson had for writers, an insightful way of looking at both fictional and real characters.

Francis Manapul is DC Comics’ latest golden child, as artist and writer on The Flash series since the New 52’s launch in 2011. He started his FEBTOR speech at the very beginning; a kid so captivated by superheroes that he wanted to be one. Once he started drawing comics professionally, he realized that growing as an artist made him a better storyteller. In turn, he focused less on drawing comics and more on telling the story, which is how he ended up writing The Flash. He even shared what he considers the dirty secret of North American comics: super heroes can’t grow or change. If these characters that readers know and love change too much, they eventually become unrecognizable. “Writers give readers the illusion of change by changing the story around an unchanged man or woman in an ever-changing world.” It’s a simple enough formula that Manapul elaborated on, stating “the best way to tell the story (of an unchanging character) is to let that character be who they are but constantly challenge their principals[…] who they are.” Sage words from this first time writer.

Next up was Ramón Pérez, currently illustrating Wolverine and the X-Men after winning several awards for his graphic novel adaptation of Jim Henson’s A Tale of Sand.  A self-professed people watcher, Pérez notes the nuances and “tells” of people around him, using them to create moments in storytelling. He learned pacing and how to deliver the moments he’d created through his webcomic, Butter Nut Squash. A firm believer that every story has its own look and that directors shouldn’t approach each film with the same art style, Pérez’s style changes from project to project; adapting his art depending on what each story needs. For A Tale of Sand, Henson’s early short films were incredibly helpful in setting the tone of the graphic novel. Being treated to one of those shorts, Time Piece, was easily one of the FEBTOR’s highlights: a glimpse into the man behind the Muppets, who is even odder (and more brilliant) than you originally thought. It’s easy to see how that short influenced A Tale of Sand, the protagonist a man Pérez calls “an empty vessel for readers to put themselves into the story.” Beyond the cinematic layouts and quirky panels, Pérez used colour to create the soundtrack of the tale and even the script itself made an appearance early on in one of the few interior scenes. “Sometimes the writing is on the wall and you ignore it, but sometimes you see it.” Clever lad.

Scott Robertson is a concept artist who makes incredibly detailed and jaw-dropping images look effortless, whether it’s an epic space battle, alien city, car prototype or more. Though his speech focused on a lot of different techniques that inspire him to see things in new ways, the benchmark to all of his art is story. “There are three key things [in a good film]: compelling story, appealing characters in a believable world.” Robertson said, citing another Pixar axiom regarding story. He explained how the last two story requirements fall to artists, though in the case of comic artists, they have a major part in all three. Not content to simply create “Cool” or “Badass” images (the ideal reactions from Marketing that concept artists aim for), Robertson stresses the importance of layering the history of that world through the design of the environment. “Keep history and the narrative in mind.” He advises. “Take parallels of our world and apply it to any new ones.”

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By constantly reinventing and exploring the concept art process, Robertson finds futuristic cities in abstract custom brushes, alien races in macro photos and all-terrain vehicles in cutout filtered collages. He suggests everything from using mirrors to Photo Booth’s “pinch” image feature to taking photos of Wallscapes to simply zooming out in your image folder and seeing what the thumbnail photos remind you of. Robertson’s approach to concept art is with the childlike wonder of finding animals in clouds and then adding to the image so everyone else can see them too. “There’s no drawing police or style police [in art]” he quips, encouraging artists to use whatever works and adapt their process to make every image faster to create than the last. By using shortcuts like custom brushes or creative layering, you can avoid the ‘Ikea effect’. “Because you built it, you think it has more perceived value than it actually does.” Robertson explains. “You fall in love with something because of the labor you put into it. Invest less labour, get more output.”

Overall, the speakers at FEBTOR 2013 were engaging, inspiring, and really fun to listen to. On top of great presentations, there were regular prize giveaways from Silver Snail, Copic, Sony Music Canada and more, as well as free coffee and baked goods from Black Canary Espresso Bar. Attendees had many chances to get out of their chairs, refresh their drinks and mingle with over seventy incredibly talented creators that made up the event’s audience. These moments were just as crucial as the speakers, as it allowed everyone the chance to discuss what they’d just heard or chat with a speaker about it directly. With the popularity of this SketchBook Pro event growing every year (last year there were several offers to purchase a ticket even though the event is free), there are murmurs of a venue change to increase the event’s capacity. Opening it up to a bigger audience would be great, as there are many creators who would benefit from it, but it will sacrifice the intimate, low-key feel FEBTOR had.

Whatever Cheung and his SketchBook Pro team decide to do in 2014, we hope to be a part of it; bringing the best bits of advice to Dork Shelf readers.

See more photos of the event and Chris Cheung’s wrap-up here.

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